For first-time teenage offenders, Teen Court is a better alternative to juvenile court. In the Teen Court Program, after admitting guilt or taking responsibility for their misdemeanor offenses, teen offenders have their cases heard and are then sanctioned by teen juries and have about five weeks to complete it, avoiding formal prosecution and a stained court record.
Created by the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of Hillsborough County in 1990, Teen Court also has teens volunteering as juries and defense and prosecution attorneys. Pro bono attorneys volunteer as judges and train the ‘teen’ attorneys.
Pamela Stokes, who recently retired as Teen Court coordinator, was with the program since it began. She said the youth volunteers are very diligent, are not judgmental of the offenders and try to reach out, direct and help them.
“I love the environment and working with the teenagers,” she said. “I love looking back and seeing that some of the students I’ve worked with…they’re actually now attorneys and they’re working with us in a pro bono status as Teen Court judges.”
Pro bono attorneys will gain pro bono hours, can teach youths about court trials and enhance their skills and help them open career paths in the legal profession through mentorship. The victim and community are also compensated for the offender’s actions.
Philip Colesanti, an associate attorney at Roig Lawyers in Tampa who volunteers, said, “Teen Court offers a positive perspective on our criminal justice system. It gives those in trouble an opportunity to learn from their mistakes without affecting their future while offering their peers interested in the legal profession an opportunity that could shape their future.”
Everyone benefits in this program. Offenders, who must be ages 13-18, can avoid formal juvenile court, are provided resources for individual and family services and can return as volunteers. Youth volunteers will receive community service hours; mentorship opportunities; increase communication, public speaking and communication skills; and have a strong addition to their resumes.
Megan Hoening, who is a junior at Newsome High School, said, “I decided to volunteer for Teen Court to get a feel of what a trial is really like and to do what I can to be a part of the court system. I’ve had a lot of fun and find the trials to be interesting while also learning a lot.”
Court Administrator Gina Justice said, “In a court environment, you have so few instances where you really feel you made a positive impact… And when they come and participate in such an innovative program, it’s just a way to engage in a way that results in a positive outcome for everybody.”
Teen Court is held on Tuesdays from 5:30-8 p.m. on the third floor of the Edgecomb Courthouse at 800 E. Twiggs Street in Tampa.
For more information, visit the Teen Court FAQ pages at http://www.fljud13.org/CourtPrograms/JuvenileDiversionPrograms.aspx or call Yvette Boatwright at 307-4478.